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Why Some People Chronically Procrastinate

When Unhappy Achievers struggle to achieve.

Key points

  • Unhappy Achievers believe they are not lovable if they don't succeed, yet they also resist that idea—leading to procrastination.
  • Procrastinating can put one at risk of actual failure, which can then amplify one's negative self-talk and the cycle of procrastination.
  • Recognizing the internal struggle that leads to procrastination is the first step toward resolving it.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

"I just can't make myself do it."

Charlotte was teetering between anger and tears. She was an up-and-coming financial analyst with a bright future on Wall Street, or at least that's how her friends saw her. But any time her boss gave her an important project, Charlotte would put off starting on it, then work on it for a while—then stop again. Time would run short and she would have to work in a panic to get something out the door.

She was smart and good at her job, so she wasn't at risk of losing it. But sometimes her procrastination made her boss so nervous about a looming deadline that he would give the assignment to another analyst, and that couldn't keep happening.

Charlotte had another project due in a week, and she said she could already feel history repeating itself.

"It's not good enough yet," she said bitterly, "and I can't make myself work at it to make it good enough. I have no idea why." She shook her head. "I just wish I wasn't so lazy."

"Really? Lazy? Lazy people don't care about the quality of their work. Instead, they just go through the motions, doing the least amount they can get away with. Does that sound like you?"

Charlotte thought about it a moment. "Well, no. I mean, I care a lot about my work." She paused again. "It doesn't make any sense, but it's like... I care too much."

I nodded.

The Dilemma of Unhappy Achievers

Many Unhappy Achievers accomplish things consistently, and at a very high level. But sometimes they can't get themselves to work at achieving at all. Why would that be?

As I've discussed in previous posts, Unhappy Achievers feel constant pressure to perform and excel. They fear that, if they aren't constantly performing or succeeding, they won't be valuable, or even lovable. Consequently, they must succeed.

But nobody likes to be constantly pushed, even by themselves. As a result, many Unhappy Achievers find themselves pushing back—often without understanding why.

And this creates a kind of war inside them.

On one side of this war is a reasonable wish to do well, but with the added unreasonable pressure of having to perform at extremely high levels to feel worthwhile. On the other side of this war is a deep resistance to having to work so hard just to keep proving their worth. The result can be an avoidance of work, or as Charlotte exhibited, a see-sawing between working and avoiding working. This inaction can look like laziness on the surface, but it is actually the result of a furious battle playing out just underneath.

To make matters worse, procrastinating risks bringing Unhappy Achievers the failure they so fear, leaving them feeling even more worthless. It's a vicious cycle: they have to perform in order to feel valuable but their resistance to performing makes them feel useless. That's when they often start using negative self-talk, describing themselves as "lazy" and "no good."

So Charlotte actually had it right: Her procrastination wasn't because she didn't care about her work, but because she cared too much. What she didn't yet know was that she cared too much because achieving at the highest level was the only way to feel she was a worthwhile person, which she deeply resented.

What to Do If You Procrastinate

If you find yourself relating to Charlotte, the first thing to do is stop bullying yourself by calling yourself lazy when you procrastinate. You may think that constantly scolding yourself will snap you out of the paralysis that you're feeling. But the accusation is untrue, and it only amplifies the problem.

Instead, try shifting your focus. Become a detective about what triggers your procrastination. Whether you're procrastinating at work or anywhere else, ask yourself:

  • Am I pushing myself to work in a way that is harsh and excessive?
  • Am I doing this for me, or to gain someone else's approval?
  • What is the emotional reward that I'm hoping to get if I'm successful? (What's really at stake for me here—is it the task, or is it feeling like I'm a good person?)
  • What do I think will happen if I fail? Is this a realistic outcome?

While working with a good therapist can help facilitate this detective work, you can do some of it on your own. And if deep down, you believe that accomplishing a task will make or break whether you are seen as a valued person, then it's not surprising that you may be resisting it.

Most of all, if you can recognize the internal struggle that produces procrastination, you can start becoming compassionate with yourself about it. And that is one task that you shouldn't put off even one day longer.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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